” When will people ever see that good art is living and real, intimate, and grand? That real beauty is in ordinary life? Not in a place built to the great grandeur of France and her immortal emperor, I’m afraid. ” (Part 2, p.73)
Claude and Camille is a diverting fiction representation of the Impressionist maverick Claude Monet and his first wife, who died at the age of 32. The bulk of the book is about the relationship between the struggling young painter and Camille Doncieux. Though Monet had glimpsed Camille as a child, briefly, at the train station on his way to army conscript, it isn’t until a chance encounter in her uncle’s bookshop in Paris that the artist and his muse finally meet. Both are in defiance of their family’s wishes for them to take up the life of a tradesman and society lady, respectively.
Why they all had to paint, why they must paint. No one discussed what it was like when they no longer wanted to do it, when the intimacy of it was gone and left you with nothing . . . This thing I loved so has become nothing for me but a canvas worth selling. (Part 4, p.189)
Because of Monet’s poverty, Camille’s disapproving parents, and the existence of a proper fiance, their courtship is difficult, even after Monet receives acclaim for The Woman in the Green Dress, a portrait of Camille accepted into the famous Salon of French Artists. Despite these obstacles, Camille commits to the artist. Her imminent pregnancy is a difficult situation given that Monet’s critical acclaim has not brought financial rewards, at least not until after the war with Prussia, during which they fled to London. Monet’s obsessive passion and erratic income put a lot of strain on his marriage; and Camille, often given to whims, slowly realizes with dismay what she has given up by marrying Monet, who in turn struggles to keep her happy while trying to make a living through his art.
Over the past few years they also had been drifting into their old habit of not telling each other their difficulties, and slowly the unspoken words lay within him until sometimes the things he wanted to say got trapped between the things he did not. (Part 6, p.261)
As the tight implies, the book focuses more on Monet’s private life than his career. It’s difficult to write with rising interest in a narrative full of ups and downs of a relationship. But the strain is relieved by the description of life in late 19th century Paris, rendered in great detail, in the comradeship between Monet and his group of fellow Impressionists—Bazille, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet. They support one other ceaselessly, not only financially but emotionally as well. When Cowell does delve in the paintings, the description is impeccable, if not with the actual tools and instruction, the techniques and explanations of the new ideas on color and light. It’s a lighter book if you want to know about Monet’s life.
340 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]